Depth: where is it hidden?

Suppose the following:

You are sitting at a table outside a street café on a busy afternoon. For a little while you have noticed a couple, standing a few steps away in the middle of the crowd, talking to each other. Suddenly one of the two raises their voice. They start arguing, and gradually get louder. People around them stop and start looking, some laugh, some shake their heads with a frown; but nobody interrupts. It’s become a terrific scene, and everybody follows the drama with fascination.

This episode could show up in a number of ways in your life. It may have been something you dreamed; or a scene you actively imagined (which, in fact, you probably just did while reading the text above). But it may be a scene from a novel you were reading or a movie you watched (where, strictly speaking, it was the protagonist who was sitting at the café table; but you were so immersed in the movie that you put yourself in their shoes, and witnessed the scene from their perspective). And finally, of course, it may be something you just witnessed during your day.

Let’s say it was the latter. If that was the case, what would you have supposed, right there in the moment, you were witnessing? What would have been your answer, if someone had asked you just then, to the question: “What is going on here?”

The answer most of us would probably give is that we were witnessing some kind of domestic dispute, involving two people who were either insensitive to their surroundings or so engrossed in their fight that they didn’t care. (That this is the most likely answer has probably to do with life experience and the habit of assuming that such episodes in daily life generally are what they seem.) But now suppose that, after the argument has become more and more heated, and gradually more absurd, it suddenly stops, the two people take a bow before the audience, and then hand out flyers for this night’s show at the local theatre. Your answer, at this point, would change from “some kind of domestic fight” to “a piece of street theatre”. (If that sort of performance were somewhat normal just in that street, this might even have been your most likely first response; perhaps you were sitting at that table precisely because you knew what was coming…)

What we think “is going on” — how we experience an episode like this — depends on many things, and some of them are hidden in the context. They do not appear on the surface level, and they are not readily observed. Once we become aware of them, that is, once they do come to the front of our awareness, our interpretation (“what is going on”) might well shift and change. But as long as they don’t, we generally stick to one interpretation: the most likely one, the one we habitually make.

Those features which are “hidden in the context” do not show up in the “text” of the episode as well. The narrative I have given you, in the quote at the beginning, does not mention them, and therefore, the “text” supports both the interpretation as “domestic fight” and the interpretation as “street theatre” — plus an indefinite number of others, albeit more far-fetched ones. (The two people on the street may have suddenly become possessed by revenant spirits, or taken over by alien mindbenders…)

Of course it is typical for a “text” to support multiple interpretations, and equally typical for us to simply assume one of them, often habitually, especially in daily life. What interests me here is not that well-known fact, but the question of the relationship between the “text” of the episode, its multiple interpretations, and those features which are “hidden in the context” and connect the “text” with a different interpretation each.

1. The shift from one interpretation to another which we just went through is what Erving Goffman calls a “keying” (Frame Analysis, 40ff).

The metaphor is musical: we can take a melody and play it in one key (say, g minor), and then transpose it and play it in a different one (e minor). We’re still playing the same melody: the notes in it have the same relation with each other. But the melody and its notes, all together, have been moved somewhere else. The result is different from before — different in its effects: even though it is the same melody, it somehow sounds different now. (In our example, if we transposed something from g to e minor, it would now sound darker.)

(As Goffman accurately observes, “mode” would be a better analogy than “key”, if we have to take our terminology from music; cf. FA 44, n14. In a shift between modes, the intervals between notes in the melody also change, and thus the melody sounds appreciably different, though of course still clearly recognizable; the corresponding change in key is comparatively subtle. But modes are a feature of music no more, and the awareness in our general population of mediaeval chant is so dim that the metaphor, if expressed in modes rather than keys, would lose its suggestiveness.)

Thus the metaphor of “transposition to a different key” helps us understand how the same “text” of the episode can have different interpretations: just as the same melody moves to a different key, the same text moves to a different interpretation. A certain feature (the key, g/e minor, in the metaphor; the domestic problems/theatre performance agenda in the street argument episode) determines which interpretation we make — but that feature is not in the “text”, but in the context. And usually, what’s in the context is not something we are directly aware of. Typically, what we are aware of is only the “text”.

Goffman’s theory of “keyings” was based on a study of the difference between “play” and “the real thing”, starting from observations of Bateson’s about the behavior of animals: otters sometimes engage in “play fights” that look like the real thing, but of course are “only play”, i.e. they do not result in real wounds and killings among them. But the “text” of these activities, obviously, looks as similar as possible when we compare “play” and “the real thing” (see FA 40f.). The general idea behind this, i.e. the idea of “simulation”, has many applications: a pilot using a flight simulator has an experience that is only simulated, but close to “the real thing”, in order to train and figure out which decisions work and which don’t; a student in a kung-fu class might be granted many tries to “hit the master” to experience how his attempts would be parried by an experienced fighter; a company might pay a white-hat hacker to break into their networks in order to find out where the weaknesses lie in their cyber security. They all have in common that the difference between simulation and reality never shows up in the manifest “text”, and thus some of those involved may even remain unaware of it.

At this point, Goffman introduces a distinction between “keyings” and “fabrications”. The former are modeled on the notion of “play”, as compared to “the real thing”:

a given activity, one already meaningful in terms of some primary framework, is transformed into something patterned on this activity but seen by the participants to be something quite else. (FA 44.)

(The primary framework, in our example, would be the argument or fight between two people, and the participants the two actors — at least initially, for after the bow the participants might well be said to include the bystanders, who now have reason to see themselves as an audience to a performance.) The latter, i.e. “fabrications”, are fundamentally a form of deception:

the intentional effort of one or more individuals to manage activity so that a party of one or more others will be induced to have a false belief about what it is that is going on. (FA 83.)

Con tricks of some elaboration seem to be broadly the model here. (In some sense, our example might be seen as falling more readily under the notion of “fabrication” rather than “keying”, especially when it is told, as I have above, from the perspective of an initially uninitiated observer. After all, that observer has the false belief that a fight was actually going on, for some time, until they realized it was really just make-belief.) Just as with a “keying”, a “fabrication” would have some features which the manifest “text” doesn’t show — in this case, they would be deliberately obscured by the fabricators, since that helps their purpose — but which are hidden in the context. Knowledge of these features, once more, would bring the real nature of “what is going on” to awareness. (And in this case, that would end the deception.)

To be clear: that these features are said to be “hidden” does not mean that they are generally inaccessible. It means that they are inaccessible from inside the experience itself, as long as that experience goes on unchanged, i.e. as long as one answer to the question (“what is going on”) remains valid. During that time, those features are in the context, but not in the “text”. (The critical moment of change would be, in Goffmanian terms, a “frame break” or “reframing”, or — in the case of keyed activity — an “exit cue”. In our example episode above, the exit cue was the moment when the two arguing people on the street took a bow towards the audience and thus revealed themselves as play-acting. From the cue everybody involved could understand that “what is going on” was a make-believe fight rather than a real one. In the case of a fabrication, such as in a con trick, it would be an occasion where the fabrication is “seen through”, and the deception breaks down.)

Conversely, then, when a “text” is all we have, and we don’t have access to the context (or have not yet gained reflective insight into the context), we have to assume that there are some hidden features, features which are not manifest in the “text”, but which might play a role in determining “what is going on”.

2. I have already suggested that the episode on the street might equally have been in a dream, a fantasy, or a work of fiction. Add to this both the “real world” scenario of an actual argument and the street theatre case, and we have a number of quite different situations, each of which share the exact same “text” (as expressed in the quote above). What differentiates them is thus nothing that shows up in the “text”, but something that is “hidden in the context”.

(Once more: there is no reason in principle why any of the elements that differentiate these types of situation might not show up in the “text”. For instance, I might have included the two actors’ taking a bow in my narrative, and then the “keying” nature of the activity would have been accessible from it. What goes into the “text” and what remains in the context is to some degree arbitrary and depends on who is presenting the “text” and what they want or don’t want to include, for whatever reasons.)

Now I want to suggest that when we are looking for meaning in an episode, we generally are in the situation that all we have is the “text”, and that, at least initially, the context is not present to our awareness. In fact, “looking for meaning” usually proceeds by bringing at least some of the context into awareness. (That is something we might do by ourselves, but it frequently requires help from people who can take a wider perspective, and thus facilitate our insight into the context.) 

Frame analysis is of course one way of bringing context into awareness: we can reflect on whether the “text” is taken to be a primary activity, a keyed activity, or a fabrication in Goffman’s senses of these terms. After all, that is where the terminology originates from: the root metaphor is that of “frame and image”, and it points to the sometimes astonishing extent to which the same image (such as, say, a painting) can appear quite differently, even express quite different meanings, when put into different frames. The frame influences how we see its contents. And thus broadly, the way we “frame” activity organizes how we experience it. (Thus the subtitle of Goffman’s book: “An essay on the organization of experience”.)

What is inside the frame, of course, is the “image”, and what I have called so far the “text” (in order to contrast it with “context”) is frequently called “image” in authors concerned with that same looking for meaning. Thus when archetypal psychologists speak about “images”, they might refer to an episode quite like the one in my example above, especially if it did occur in a dream. (Hillman, Berry, and others sometimes simply use “the dream” and “the image” interchangeably when they want to distinguish it, as “text”, from its context.) The content of a fantasy or a piece of fiction would frequently also be called an “image”, too; and given the idea that much of what we perceive as going on in the outer world are thought to be projections, even the “text” of an episode like my example, taken to represent an everyday occurrence, would fall under the notion of “image” (squarely so, I gather, if taken to be the content of a street theatre performance).

But the terminology of “frame and image” has a significant weakness. In cases like our example — and that is to say: in virtually all the interesting cases — where multiple framings are possible, it becomes non-trivial to sort out what is in the frame and what is in the image. The result is frequent confusion when some content would be in the image under one framing, but part of the frame under a different one.

Goffman himself was aware of that risk. On the topic of “layering” frames, he suggests that

it is convenient to refer to a particular frame by the label we give its rim [the outermost containing frame]; thus, “the rehearsal frame”, “the theatrical frame”, and so forth. However, one ought to keep in mind that often what is being described is not the frame as a whole but the keying it sustains. (FA 82.)

But this is not enough. If there is something significant on which we want to reflect, we should design our terminology so that it shows up in it, rather than relying on everybody (the writer and the reader) to “keep it in mind”.

A case in point is Berry’s “rule of thumb” on the frame and the image (Echo’s Subtle Body, 162-163). Her example is this: 

In a case colloquium […] someone presents a situation with a client with whom they are having difficulty. 

In this example, the “text” is a description of a situation (namely, the situation which the presenter experienced with their client). We are not give the actual description (it is not an explicit part of Berry’s example, we’re only told that a description was presented). But we learn that, at the colloquium, the presenter introduces their “text” by explaining that they “have difficulty with this client”. So the presenter tries to influence the interpretation which his audience will make — in other words: the presenter frames the description in a certain way.

Now Berry remarks that

[generally] speaking, what the participants in the group will see, being astute psychological participants, is not what the presenter “meant” for them to see but what the presenter has not presented and perhaps not known. (Ibd.)

Now if the audience really sees something “the presenter has not presented”, then obviously they have perceived something that was not in the presenter’s description of that situation with his client, i.e. something that was not in the “text”. And if the audience realizes this (“the presenter has left something out”), they might also realize that the lacuna resulted from the framing (“the presenter left something out because they presented the situation as one that illustrates the difficulty with their client”). The audience, in Berry’s example, performs a bit of ad-hoc frame analysis and can therefore understand more about the “text” than what is explicitly presented. (And that, of course, is only fitting for “astute psychological participants”.)

So the “frame and image” terminology has helped us here to sort something out: we can distinguish between two different processes of interpretation the audience performs, one of the image (the “text”) in the presented frame, one of the framing itself, and potentially of the image under different frames. Since the differences are all in the framings, the terminology (and more broadly, frame analysis) has a useful role to play in it.

But surprisingly, Berry discards it all and goes on:

I consider the image here to be both what the presenter presented and what others saw, the unconscious workings behind the presentation and evoked by it. The conscious framing was the framing of the presentation, but that framing also brought other levels, other insights, and other points of view into the discussion. (Ibd., 162.)

At this point we have to wonder why we are talking about frames and framings at all — for it seems that Berry thinks that none of it is actually in the frame (it’s all included in the image). 

In Berry’s usage, the language of “frame and image” becomes useless, because in the end everything ends up in the image and nothing in the frame. All her subtle distinctions merely serve to argue that there are “different images” (compare her concluding statement; ibd. 163), never that we might have different framings of the same image. And that is all the more surprising since, in order to arrive at this muddled position, she has herself to break the directive of “sticking to the image” (compare ESB 161; also: 45, 48, 80, 116): in her own example, the image would be the “text” of the description her presenter gave — and all the rest would be various levels and processes of framing. But Berry expressly includes with “the image” also “what others saw” but “what the presenter has not presented” (i.e. what was only implicit in the framing). And that is precisely the mistake one would try to avoid by actually “sticking to the image”.

3. If an investigation into framing constitutes a look at something that is not in the image, that is, something not manifest in the “text”, then an investigation into framing is a way of following invisible connections, and thus will get us deeper into the image — for depth, as Hillman says, “is in the invisible connection” (DU 140).

(A reflection of the framing is of course only one way in which this happens. Equally, the connection to the invisible can start from one of the details in the manifest “text” which happens to trigger a strong emotion, and when we follow it up, that “significant detail works like a leading thread into the invisible weave, or context, of the image”; UE 4, 89.)

To get into depth means that the imagination gets activated, and thus frame analysis (not entirely unlike psycho-analysis) is a procedure that essentially involves the imagination. It has this feature in common with pretty much every other process that deals with images.

We perceive images with the imagination, or, better said, we imagine them rather than perceive them, and we cannot perceive with sense perception the depths that are not extended in the sense world. (DU 55.)

The connections to the invisible which are folded into the image cannot be seen, but only imagined. (I take it that this means that they cannot be in the manifest “text”, i.e. they would not be captured in a description.) Quite clearly, reflecting on frames falls in that category, too: when we say something like “this would look different if it were put in a different frame”, what we do is imagine an alternate possibility. (Consider: “What would his face look like if he had shorter hair?”) Insofar as reframing is an operation on an image, it is an act of the imagination, and that is why it adds depth to our understanding.

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By Leif Frenzel

Leif Frenzel is a writer and independent researcher. He has a background in philosophy, literature, music, and information technology. His recent interest is Jungian psychology, especially synchronicities and the relationship between consciousness and the unconscious.

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